Old guard squeezed in new market
As teams emphasize youth and draft picks, aging stars are losing out
Only 10 players age 35 or older qualified for the batting title in 2008
The Yankees will be relying on several aging stars in '09, like Derek Jeter
The baseball actuarial tables have been rewritten. As clubs continue to place greater value on young players under control (witness the new religion about not losing compensatory draft picks), the older free agent is being severely devalued. What has been a slow market for almost every player not negotiating with the New York Yankees has become downright cruel for the aging position player.
The old-guard glut includes former stars Moises Alou, 42, Garret Anderson, 36, Ray Durham, 37, Jim Edmonds, 38, Cliff Floyd, 36, Nomar Garciaparra, 35, Jason Giambi, 37, Luis Gonzalez, 41, Ken Griffey Jr., 39, Mark Grudzielanek, 38, Jeff Kent, 40, Ivan Rodriguez, 37, Frank Thomas, 40, and Omar Vizquel, 41. Like or not, some of them may be forced into retirement rather than taking a cut-rate deal. The same scenario played out last year for Barry Bonds, 43, (excess baggage contributed mightily to his unemployment), Steve Finley, 43, Kenny Lofton, 40, Mike Piazza, 39, and Sammy Sosa, 39.
The Mets cut against the trend last winter by counting on Alou to play leftfield, and wound up getting burned by his predictable breakdown. Almost no team wants to take that kind of gamble these days.
What's going on? The game belongs to young legs. Clubs are convinced they are better off giving young players a shot than taking the risk that a once-great player still has something left in the tank. Taking a flier on an aging position player can cost more in dollars and in distractions, as the Blue Jays found out last year when they determined that Thomas wasn't going to help them. Benching a former All-Star is not always easy. This season, Toronto would be better served to give Adam Lind at-bats rather than signing a veteran bat such as Giambi or Anderson. And while Baltimore has some interest in Rodriguez to keep the catching spot warm for prospect Matt Wieters, would Rodriguez be happy to yield the job to the kid during the first half of the season and become a backup and mentor?
Moreover, baseball people have speculated that the trend away from older players also may involve bans on performance-enhancing drugs and amphetamines, which some believe impact the older player more than the younger player.
In 2007, 20 players age 35 or older qualified for the batting title. Last year that number was cut in half, to 10, marking the fewest such veterans since 1999. Only three players age 37 or older qualified for the batting title: Jim Thome, Brian Giles and Giambi. In 2004 there were eight such aged ones getting full-time gigs.
Giambi may have to take a one-year deal from Oakland after thinking he might get a two- or three-year deal. He has missed 28 percent of his team's games over the past five years, is a liability at first base when he is physically able to play there, and turns 38 in March. Bobby Abreu, who turns 35 in March, is unlikely to see the four-year deal he wanted, and may be the fallback for the Dodgers if they can't agree to terms with Manny Ramirez. Griffey may have lost one possibility when the Rays signed Pat Burrell, and may be left with a sentimental offer to return to Seattle.
Anderson could be the player most squeezed by this trend. He turns 37 in June, hasn't played 100 games in the field for three seasons and has neither the power nor on-base ability of the other hitters on the market.
The Rays and Phillies last year provided another reminder of the trend toward younger, more athletic players by reaching the World Series without counting on old, everyday players. The past seven world champions have used a combined total of only seven starting everyday players who were 33 or older, including just four players who were playing past their 35th birthday.
The Yankees, for all the money they have spent, will try to buck this trend by starting Alex Rodriguez, 33, Derek Jeter, who turns 35 in June, Johnny Damon, 35 and Jorge Posada, 37, with Hideki Matsui, 35, getting at-bats in the outfield and at DH. No team has won the pennant with a 35-or-older shortstop since the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers with Pee Wee Reese. Only two of the 240 teams to make the postseason since then used such an old shortstop: the 1996 Orioles (Cal Ripken) and 1981 Phillies (Larry Bowa).
As baseball skews younger, future Hall of Fame ballots will be jam-packed with possibilities. (This year's ballot was the smallest ever.) The 2011 ballot, for instance, will include Bonds, Piazza, Sosa, Lofton, Finley, Roger Clemens, David Wells and Craig Biggio. The 2012 ballot already will have Greg Maddux and Mike Mussina. At the rate things are going this winter, it could also wind up with Alou, Gonzalez, Kent, Thomas, Vizquel, Tom Glavine, Curt Schilling and Kenny Rogers.